Looking at the Renaissance: Essays Toward a Contextual Appreciation

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Other movements from ancient philosophy also re-entered the mainstream. This was never really the case for Epicureanism, which was almost always caricatured and considered with suspicion, but Scepticism and Pyrrhonism did make a comeback thanks to writers like Michel Montaigne , and the movement of Stoicism made an impressive re-appearance in the writings of Justus Lipsius. While generally the Aristotelian structure of the branches of philosophy stayed in place, interesting developments and tensions were taking place within them.

In moral philosophy, for instance, a position consistently held by Thomas Aquinas and his numerous followers was that its three subfields ethics, economics, politics were related to progressively wider spheres the individual, the family and the community. Politics, Thomas thought, is more important than ethics because it considers the good of the greater number. This position came under increasing strain in the Renaissance, as various thinkers claimed that Thomas's classifications were inaccurate, and that ethics were the most important part of morality.

He insisted, for instance, on the value of the practical aspects of ethics. Petrarch's position, expressed both strongly and amusingly in his invective On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others De sui ipsius ac multorum ignorantia is also important for another reason: it represents the conviction that philosophy should let itself be guided by rhetoric, that the purpose of philosophy is therefore not so much to reveal the truth, but to encourage people to pursue the good.

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This perspective, so typical of Italian humanism, could easily lead to reducing all philosophy to ethics, in a move reminiscent of Plato's Socrates and of Cicero. If, as mentioned above, scholasticism continued to flourish, the Italian humanists i. As we have seen, they believed that philosophy could be brought under the wing of rhetoric.

They also thought that the scholarly discourse of their time needed to return to the elegance and precision of its classical models. They therefore tried dressing philosophy in a more appealing garb than had their predecessors, whose translations and commentaries were in technical Latin and sometimes simply transliterated the Greek.

He hoped to communicate the elegance of Aristotle's Greek while also making the text more accessible to those without a philosophical education.

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The driving conviction was that philosophy should be freed of its technical jargon so that more people would be able to read it. At the same time, all kinds of summaries, paraphrases, and dialogues dealing with philosophical issues were prepared, in order to give their topics a wider dissemination. Humanists also encouraged the study of Aristotle and other writers of antiquity in the original.

Desiderius Erasmus , the great Dutch humanist, even prepared a Greek edition of Aristotle, and eventually those teaching philosophy in the universities had to at least pretend that they knew Greek. Humanists were not, however, great fans of the vernacular. There is only a handful of examples of dialogues or translations of Aristotle's works into Italian during the fifteenth century. Once it had been determined, however, that Italian was a language with literary merit and that it could carry the weight of philosophical discussion, numerous efforts in this direction started to appear, particularly from the s onward.

Alessandro Piccolomini had a programme to translate or paraphrase the entire Aristotelian corpus into the vernacular. Efforts got underway to present Plato's doctrines in the vernacular as well. This rise of vernacular philosophy, which quite predated the Cartesian approach, is a new field of research whose contours are only now beginning to be clarified. It is very hard to generalize about the ways in which discussions of philosophical topics shifted in the Renaissance, mainly because to do so requires a detailed map of the period, something we do not yet have.

We know that debates about the freedom of the will continued to flare up for instance, in the famous exchanges between Erasmus and Martin Luther , that Spanish thinkers were increasingly obsessed with the notion of nobility, that duelling was a practice that generated a large literature in the sixteenth century was it permissible or not? Earlier histories gave perhaps undue attention to Pietro Pomponazzi 's pronouncements on the immortality of the soul as a question that could not be resolved philosophically in a way consistent with Christianity, or to Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the dignity of man, as if these were signals of the period's increasing secularism or even atheism.

In fact, the most successful compendium of natural philosophy in the period Compendium philosophiae naturalis , first published in was authored by Frans Titelmans, a Franciscan friar from the Low Countries whose work has a very strong religious flavour.

Renaissance philosophy - Wikipedia

In other words, religion had a massive importance in the period, and one can hardly study philosophy without remembering this. This is true among others for the philosophy of Marsilio Ficino — , who reinterpreted Plato in the light of his early Greek commentators and also of Christianity. Ficino hoped that a purified philosophy would bring about a religious renewal in his society and therefore transformed distasteful aspects of Platonic philosophy for instance, the homosexual love exalted in the Symposium into spiritual love i.

Ficino and his followers also had an interest in 'hidden knowledge', mainly because of his belief that all of ancient knowledge was interconnected Moses, for instance, had received his insights from the Greeks, who in turn had received them from others, all according to God's plan and therefore mutually consistent; Hermeticism is relevant here.

Although Ficino's interest in and practice of astrology was not uncommon in his time, one should not necessarily associate it with philosophy, as the two were usually considered to be quite separate and often in contradiction with each other. In conclusion, like any other moment in the history of thought Renaissance philosophy cannot be considered to have provided something entirely new nor to have continued for centuries to repeat the conclusions of its predecessors. Historians call this period the 'Renaissance' in order to indicate the rebirth that took place of ancient particularly classical perspectives, sources, attitudes toward literature and the arts.

At the same time, we realize that every reappropriation is constrained and even guided by contemporary concerns and biases. It was no different for the period considered here: the old was mixed with and changed by the new, but while no claims can be made for a revolutionary new starting point in philosophy, in many ways the synthesis of Christianity, Aristotelianism, and Platonism offered by Thomas Aquinas was torn apart in order to make way for a new one, based on more complete and varied sources, often in the original, and certainly attuned to new social and religious realities and a much broader public.

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As the Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation clashed, the Northern Renaissance showed a decisive shift in focus from Aristotelean natural philosophy to chemistry and the biological sciences botany, anatomy, and medicine. Some view this as a " scientific revolution ", heralding the beginning of the modern age, [62] others as an acceleration of a continuous process stretching from the ancient world to the present day. De humani corporis fabrica On the Workings of the Human Body , by Andreas Vesalius , gave a new confidence to the role of dissection , observation, and the mechanistic view of anatomy.

Another important development was in the process for discovery, the scientific method , [65] focusing on empirical evidence and the importance of mathematics , while discarding Aristotelian science. Early and influential proponents of these ideas included Copernicus, Galileo, and Francis Bacon. Applied innovation extended to commerce. At the end of the 15th century Luca Pacioli published the first work on bookkeeping , making him the founder of accounting.

During the Renaissance, extending from to , [71] every continent was visited and mostly mapped by Europeans, except the south polar continent now known as Antarctica. He accidentally stumbled upon the Americas, but believed he had reached the East Indies. More than thirty Dutch expeditions followed, mapping sections of the north, west and south coasts.

Renaissance philosophy

In —, Abel Tasman circumnavigated the continent, proving that it was not joined to the imagined south polar continent. By , Dutch cartographers had mapped most of the coastline of the continent, which they named New Holland , except the east coast which was charted in by Captain Cook.

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The long-imagined south polar continent was eventually sighted in Throughout the Renaissance it had been known as Terra Australis , or 'Australia' for short. However, after that name was transferred to New Holland in the nineteenth century, the new name of 'Antarctica' was bestowed on the south polar continent.

From this changing society emerged a common, unifying musical language, in particular the polyphonic style of the Franco-Flemish school. The development of printing made distribution of music possible on a wide scale. Demand for music as entertainment and as an activity for educated amateurs increased with the emergence of a bourgeois class. Dissemination of chansons , motets , and masses throughout Europe coincided with the unification of polyphonic practice into the fluid style that culminated in the second half of the sixteenth century in the work of composers such as Palestrina , Lassus , Victoria and William Byrd.

The new ideals of humanism, although more secular in some aspects, developed against a Christian backdrop, especially in the Northern Renaissance. Much, if not most, of the new art was commissioned by or in dedication to the Church.


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  • The Renaissance began in times of religious turmoil. The late Middle Ages was a period of political intrigue surrounding the Papacy , culminating in the Western Schism , in which three men simultaneously claimed to be true Bishop of Rome. Although the papacy eventually emerged supreme in ecclesiastical matters by the Fifth Council of the Lateran , it was dogged by continued accusations of corruption, most famously in the person of Pope Alexander VI , who was accused variously of simony , nepotism and fathering four children most of whom were married off, presumably for the consolidation of power while a cardinal.

    Churchmen such as Erasmus and Luther proposed reform to the Church, often based on humanist textual criticism of the New Testament. Humanism and the Renaissance therefore played a direct role in sparking the Reformation, as well as in many other contemporaneous religious debates and conflicts.

    Pope Paul III came to the papal throne — after the sack of Rome in , with uncertainties prevalent in the Catholic Church following the Protestant Reformation. Nicolaus Copernicus dedicated De revolutionibus orbium coelestium On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres to Paul III, who became the grandfather of Alessandro Farnese cardinal , who had paintings by Titian , Michelangelo , and Raphael , as well as an important collection of drawings, and who commissioned the masterpiece of Giulio Clovio , arguably the last major illuminated manuscript , the Farnese Hours.

    By the 15th century, writers, artists, and architects in Italy were well aware of the transformations that were taking place and were using phrases such as modi antichi in the antique manner or alle romana et alla antica in the manner of the Romans and the ancients to describe their work.

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    In the s Petrarch referred to pre-Christian times as antiqua ancient and to the Christian period as nova new. Humanist historians argued that contemporary scholarship restored direct links to the classical period, thus bypassing the Medieval period, which they then named for the first time the "Middle Ages".

    The term first appears in Latin in as media tempestas middle times. It was not just the growing awareness of classical antiquity that drove this development, according to Vasari, but also the growing desire to study and imitate nature. In the 15th century, the Renaissance spread rapidly from its birthplace in Florence to the rest of Italy and soon to the rest of Europe.

    The invention of the printing press by German printer Johannes Gutenberg allowed the rapid transmission of these new ideas. As it spread, its ideas diversified and changed, being adapted to local culture.

    An introduction to the Northern Renaissance in the fifteenth century

    In the 20th century, scholars began to break the Renaissance into regional and national movements. The word "Renaissance" is borrowed from the French language, where it means "re-birth". It was first used in the eighteenth century and was later popularized by French historian Jules Michelet — in his work, Histoire de France History of France.

    A factor that promoted the spread of secularism was the inability of the Church to offer assistance against the Black Death. Francis I imported Italian art and artists, including Leonardo da Vinci , and built ornate palaces at great expense.

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